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Reflections on Faith - September 2007 - Voices of Leadership in the Church

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September 24, 2007

We complete this last week of reflections for the month of September addressing the issues and struggles concerning leadership in the Church. As much as many have struggled with this topic (myself included), I submit that it is our special duty to hold (most of) the leadership in prayer and in respect. I say most of – because we know that there have been blatant examples of sin and failure in the Church. We need not chronicle these failings (child abuse, financial irregularities or improper relationships with parishioners). But the percentages and instances where these have happened and were definitely known while they were going on – these are extremely small in number. So these would be the only instances where leadership ought to be rigorously challenged and punished.

In the very highest number of circumstances, our leaders are given to us as a part of God’s direct plan for the world, or through what we might refer to as ‘guided circumstances.’ We ought to acknowledge this. Today’s first reading from Ezekiel speaks to this: Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth, the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem.

That is what God’s plan has demonstrated throughout the Old Testament, and of course, we have Jesus and His line of apostolic succession as told to us in the Gospels and Epistles.

So why is it that we have such problem with docility and deference to our leaders in the Church? Foremost I believe is sin. A well known Franciscan is Fr. Michael Scanlan of Franciscan University. In one of his many books entitled “Let the Fire Fall” – Fr. Scanlan wrote these words: "I have seen the work of evil spirits in the lives of individuals so often that I am convinced that the reason why so many Christians do not live in the full freedom of the sons and daughters of God is that many areas of their lives are in bondage to Satan. Sins, bad habits, physical illness, emotional wounds, psychological problems, 'bad luck,' broken relationships, fear, compulsions, and problems in relating to God are just some of the ways that Satan may wage war against us."

Let us add that many… so very many Christians are challenged with ‘evil spirits’ of criticism or dispute with Church leadership, or with other areas of service in the Church. I am familiar with one group in a Church whose very mission relates to holy and loving protection of life… and yet many in this group are strident and argumentative, most especially when they feel that they are not getting their way. I seem to recall an early story in the Bible where a woman and a man got into trouble because they weren’t getting their way.

We have become an impatient and complaining society, don’t you think? We do place leaders under a magnifying glass of expectation and schedule.

I imagine that the practice of ‘being nice’ to the pastor (or other clergy members) happens in all faiths. People bring priests dinners and desserts and clean their houses and such. Those are genuine demonstrations of care for our leaders. But at a difficult time in history – we ought to regularly be on our knees in prayer for our leaders – lifting their names and functions before the throne of Almighty God. And of course Scripture tells us that as well.

In Scripture, Jesus tells us that authority comes from God. The responsibility for caring, loving governance is incumbent on our Church leaders. If they don’t exercise their office properly, they will stand before Almighty God. Let us leave their judgment to God while we pray for strength and guidance for them each day.

Reading 1
Ez 1:1-6

In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
‘All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem,
which is in Judah.
Therefore, whoever among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!
Let everyone who has survived, in whatever place he may have dwelt,
be assisted by the people of that place
with silver, gold, goods, and cattle,
together with free-will offerings
for the house of God in Jerusalem.’”

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin
and the priests and Levites–
everyone, that is, whom God had inspired to do so–
prepared to go up to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.
All their neighbors gave them help in every way,
with silver, gold, goods, and cattle,
and with many precious gifts
besides all their free-will offerings.

Responsorial Psalm
Ps 126:1b-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6

R. (3) The Lord has done marvels for us.
When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing.
R. The Lord has done marvels for us.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed.
R. The Lord has done marvels for us.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those that sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing.
R. The Lord has done marvels for us.
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
R. The Lord has done marvels for us.

Lk 8:16-18
Jesus said to the crowd:
“No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel
or sets it under a bed;
rather, he places it on a lamp stand
so that those who enter may see the light.
For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible,
and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light.
Take care, then, how you hear.
To anyone who has, more will be given,
and from the one who has not,
even what he seems to have will be taken away.”

September 17, 2007

Both readings today are about authority – about leadership – and on having a loving heart. Today’s Gospel tells us, among other messages – about a Roman Centurion – an officer in the Army of Rome who was in command of a hundred men. We know about centurions from the New Testament. The centurion Cornelius was the first known Gentile convert – as recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts. We know of the story of the centurion who watched the crucifixion of our Lord, and when he saw the wonders associated with the death of Christ – he exclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Centurions mentioned in the New Testament are routinely spoken of in terms of praise… and I interrupt this reflection to extend personal praise and prayers on behalf of our military men and women serving our country here and around the world.

Centurions were chosen by merit and leadership – they had courage and strength of mind. In this day and age, we seem not to recognize the participation and plans of God in helping us to have the kinds of leadership we need – or sometimes the leadership we deserve.

Deacons do not have any leadership role in the Church – they are servants of the Word (e.g. Scripture), servants of the Liturgy (e.g. the Mass)… and servants of Charity.

But – because they stand before people in Church – many perceive that deacons have some form of leadership vested in them by ordination. We don’t. But I remember our Archbishop who talked to us deacon candidates just before ordination. I may be paraphrasing slightly – what he said to us was something like this: After four years of seminary formation – don’t worry if you feel that you aren’t worthy… do not worry about whether you are sinful or not – for we are all sinful. You have not chosen to become deacons – it is Christ who calls you to become a deacon. And it is His Church which has discerned that you are ready to be ordained into service as a deacon. And now – years later – if I lead a Communion Service or a funeral vigil or some other form of para-liturgy in the Church – I still pray about my unworthiness and sinfulness – but I also accept that God has called me to serve in this manner.

This lengthy explanation about deacons is really done to ground us in the fact… the belief that God participates in the leadership of the Church, just as I believe God participates in the leadership of our country. When popes, bishops, priests or deacons act in sin or in error – it isn’t because God chose that action – it is the frail human succumbing to the effects of pride – the Original Sin.

All authority comes from God. It is horrible what has happened in the ‘coarsening’ of society.

It is worse what has happened with regard to opposing views of those who criticize and challenge leadership in a non- loving, non-prayerful, and non respecting manner. As deacon – I have received some communications (letters, email, voice messages) which certainly didn’t reflect a loving manner of communicating. And – because of a few issues – I have had to participate in the review of letters and other communications directed to a pastor. Some of these are just terrible. They are not written with love in the heart; they may originate out of sinful hearts even if the apparent intention might be okay.

I don’t buy into this form of ‘step-and-fetch it’ clericalism that puts clergy and religious people on a pedestal as if they were automatically super-holy and untouchable. But I do submit that we can learn from the life of Jesus in all of our relations… in all of our communications, most especially with those in leadership positions.

And so – we continue this month of reflections directed at a goal of having us become more willing… more docile… more reflective of how we listen to, and interact with the leadership of the Church. Remember the lesson demonstrated in today’s Gospel… about how Jesus treated the Centurion. Jesus – Almighty God and in charge of all things -- He was gentle, respectful, caring. We owe at least that much to our Church (and government and military) leaders. Let us try to listen… to read… to hear what they are trying to share with us.

Reading 1
1 Tm 2:1-8
First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.
This was the testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed preacher and Apostle (I am speaking the truth, I am not lying),
teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray,
lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.

Responsorial Psalm
Ps 28:2, 7, 8-9
R. (6) Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard my prayer.
Hear the sound of my pleading, when I cry to you,
lifting up my hands toward your holy shrine.
R. Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard my prayer.
The LORD is my strength and my shield.
In him my heart trusts, and I find help;
then my heart exults, and with my song I give him thanks.
R. Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard my prayer.
The LORD is the strength of his people,
the saving refuge of his anointed.
Save your people, and bless your inheritance;
feed them, and carry them forever!
R. Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard my prayer.

Lk 7:1-10
When Jesus had finished all his words to the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him. When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave. They approached Jesus and strongly urged him to come, saying, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them,
but when he was only a short distance from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come here, and he comes; and to my slave, Do this, and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

September 10, 2007

In 2004, my wife and I traveled to Italy and we did so with another couple from our deacon formation class. Don & Betty and my wife Dee & I went through four years at the St. Francis Seminary for Deacons in the Archdiocese of Denver. After ordination, we decided to celebrate with this wonderful trip – one that I have often described as travel to the very seeds of my faith… to our faith.

We flew into Milan, traveled to several cities and wound up with a week in Rome. With planning and help from our archbishop, we were able to get wonderful seats for a Wednesday audience with the Holy Father, John Paul II. I would say that we were 25 to 30 feet from him, and we had great views of the holy, ailing and frail leader. As he has done throughout most of his pontificate, John Paul had a teaching for that day. And from this trip to Italy, and from seminary formation and in liturgies where I’ve listened to a bishop’s sermons and homilies… I’ve become aware of how much our Church leaders are speaking to us…. trying to lead us… to form us… to educate us. And it is in this ‘awakening’ for me that I’ve come to know how painfully out of touch I had been with the leadership of the Church. And while I hate to cast any stones – I believe that my earlier disconnect from the ‘fathers’ of the Church is an example and a similar symptom of this same situation in society. Many believe (or accept) that the practice and knowledge of our faith – our religion is what was learned or done twenty or thirty or more years ago.

I have also found this to be the situation with adults who have gone through RCIA (adult faith formation program). When they are baptized at the Easter Vigil or otherwise enter full union with the Church, the faith that they start with is the faith that they practice from then on. Heaven help us – Heaven help them if the RCIA program didn’t take them into topics such as litanies, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Reconciliation, practice of the rosary, fasting and other spiritual disciplines, basic Catholic prayers and prayer-life, etc. Heaven help them – and Heaven help us, the Church at large.

Well – getting back to the topic of our Church leaders – our late John Paul II has done extensive teachings about the Theology of the Body: the God-given dignity of each human person, the dignity inherent in our bodies, and the chaste lives we are called to live… chastity even in marriage. And on another subject, John Paul II taught each week for well over one hundred weeks on the topic: what is the Church? These teachings are now published in a book – each unique teaching found in a 4-5 page topic starting with the Old Testament and God’s plan for Church. I wonder how many Catholics have read much about either of these topics?

On subjects of pre-marital sex, divorce and remarriage outside of the Church, contraception, etc. – how many of us turn to the Church for detailed clarification of what the Church teaches?

How many of us allow what we think – or worse yet what society or politicians think is what we should believe? I recently looked at a teaching on marriage by the late John Paul II. He wrote about the attack on marriage and society’s new ‘family models.’ He saw these as an affront to God’s plan for marital union between man and woman. And yet – we have ‘members’ who sit in our pews who believe that because they have or know a nice, loving brother or sister living in a same-sex union – they see the Church as old-fashioned and out of touch. Says JPII: Marriage and family cannot be considered a simple product of historical circumstances or a superstructure imposed from outside of human love. On the contrary, family and marriage are an interior need of the precise love between a man and woman as part of the nature we were gifted with. Marriage is a sacrament – and sacraments are not defined by societies or historical events or attitudes.

For today, I am running out of time and there is so much more to share about this topic. God willing, I’ll visit other aspects of listening to Church leaders in the coming weeks. May God help each of us become malleable… docile to His plans for Church, worship and practice. And if the words malleable and docile bother you – if you think they are un-American… think of the saying of some years ago: What would Jesus do? How would Jesus act? Bless you. Bless us. Amen.

September 3, 2007

On September 5, 1882 the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City. Twenty thousand workers marched in a parade up Broadway. They carried banners that read "LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH," and "EIGHT HOURS FOR WORK, EIGHT HOURS FOR REST, EIGHT HOURS FOR RECREATION!" After the parade there were picnics all around the city. Workers and celebrants ate Irish stew, homemade bread and apple pie. At night, fireworks were set off. Within the next few years, the idea spread from coast to coast, and all states celebrated Labor Day. In 1894, Congress voted it a federal holiday.

Today we celebrate Labor Day with a little less fanfare on the first Monday of September. Some cities have parades and community picnics. Most Americans consider Labor Day the end of the summer, and the beaches and other popular resort areas are packed with people enjoying one last three-day weekend.

Today, we have many who believe the Church has no business speaking on public matters – matters that are in the civil arena – let me take us back to the late 1800’s – 1891 to be specific. The pope at that time was Leo 13th – he wrote a papal Encyclical titled Rerun Novarum – Latin words meaning ‘new things.’ The opening words and the title of the Encyclical spoke on the Condition of Labor (the working people) in the world.

The document addressed the newly industrializing economies and societies, and it spoke of rights and duties concerning property and property ownership. Pope Leo also wrote concerning relations between employers and employees. Early in the document is a description of the grievances of the working classes of that era. The Encyclical launched into a strong refutation of the false theories of Socialists. We may recall that socialism was a theory or system in which the production and means of distribution of goods are controlled – owned by collectives or the government.

Pope Leo wrote convincingly of the right of property ownership, a concept we now of course accept as the way it has always been… not so… not so. The true remedy to the ills of the day, he wrote is found in the combined action of the Church, the State, the employer and the employed. The Church has proper interest in this social question because of the religious and moral aspects to the new societies that were emerging. The State has the right and duty to intervene on behalf of justice and the wellbeing of the individual and society. And employers must pay fair wages, protect the good of workers – and employees must do a fair day’s work, and they have a right to form unions to represent their interests. Probably no other pronouncement on the social question has had so many readers or exercised such a wide influence. It has inspired vast Catholic literature on social teachings and responsibilities for Christians. Many non-Catholics have acclaimed it as one of the most definite and reasonable productions ever written on the subject.

One hundred years later, our beloved John Paul II chose to write on the anniversary of Rerum Novarum. He called Pope Leo’s work an ‘immortal document,’ seeing in it, words with enduring teaching value. John Paul wrote that in the century following the original encyclical – radical changes have come about in wages, property ownership and the benefits (and problems) found in the new societies. Oppressive regimes in Eastern and Central Europe collapsed as people yearned to live in freedom and in self-determined circumstances rather than under strongman governments. We know that these situations have not ended in the world. But we can see that the point of all of these papal social teachings then and now is that we see man as created with an inalienable dignity by our Creator. Society must be built and framed on principles that recognize this human dignity – and that all of us -- we, the Church have a vital part to play in prayerful support of industrial justice. Rerum Novarum stated this with great precision and authority.

Today – Labor Day – let us put an end to the foolish notion that the Church has no business speaking in areas in the public arena. Today – let us salute the hard work and accomplishments of men and women – and of cooperating and caring employers. Let us give thanks for this holiday and the fruits of God’s blessings in our society.

And now – if you’d like to meet for a picnic afterwards – we’re going to have Irish stew and apple pie!

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